Science is Accountable. Are Politicians?

Witchhunts are so 14th century A profoundly misleading headline appeared in the November 17, 2015, Washington Post: “NOAA Climate Feud: Pursuit of Scientific Truth vs. Public Accountability.” In fact, the article printed below this dry headline involves not a feud between the pursuit of scientific truth and public accountability, but between the pursuit of open research and political harassment.

At stake is nothing less than the independence of the U.S. scientific enterprise. This case affects the ability of scientists to carry out their research without fear of persecution and retaliation.

Please don't reanalyze my favorite data set! The backstory involves one of climate change deniers’ favorite false claims: they assert there has been no global warming since 1998. Never mind that the claim has been debunked over and over again. Never mind that measures of temperatures in the ocean, as opposed to the surface and at higher altitudes, clearly show continued warming. The deniers cling tenaciously to the one set of data that seems (if you squint, tap your heels together three times, and ignore longer term trends) consistent with what they desperately want to be true.

Then in June of this year, NOAA scientists really popped the deniers’ bubble. In the peer-reviewed journal Science, Thomas Karl et. al. published the results of their re-analysis of surface data and showed that there had been no hiatus. Surface temperatures, just like all the other temperature measurements, have been continuing to go up.

“Re-analyzed the data!” you cry, “that sounds nefarious!” But no, it simply means that the scientists made corrections for known differences among the instruments and procedures that had been used to collect surface temperatures over the years. When the corrections were made, the hiatus disappeared. It’s really not that complicated—if you switch from measuring temperature with a thermometer attached to a ship’s hull to a free-floating thermometer, you’re going to get slightly lower numbers (because of the heat of the ship). If some of your data were collected one way, and some the other, you have to systematically adjust the measurements to account for the known and predictable differences.

It could have gone the other way. Making all the necessary corrections might have shown that surface temperatures had gone down. Or stayed the same. That’s why it’s called “science”—you don’t know the result before you do the experiment. There’s another thing that makes this study “science”: all of the data, and every single adjustment made to the data, were made public. People with a beef about how the scientists made their corrections are free to weigh in with critiques, write letters to the editor, or submit for peer-review a publication detailing their own re-analysis of the data (which, if accepted, would certainly get the authors lots and lots of publicity, not to mention the eternal adoration—and probably future funding from—climate change deniers everywhere).

But absent some minor quibbles, the paper has attracted no rebuttals from the scientific community.

This really makes Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas, chair of the House ScCooking data. Oh wait, I think that's shrimp.... ience Committee) mad. He is convinced that NOAA scientists conspired with NOAA officials, at the behest of the Obama administration, to cook the data in such a way as to further the climate change "agenda," whatever that is. Never mind that the scientists have testified before his committee, explaining how they arrived at their conclusions, and pointing out that the data are freely available for others to scrutinize. Smith has now upped the ante and asked through a Congressional subpoena—the King Kong of information requests—for all emails and correspondence between the papers’ authors and NOAA officials.

You might say that as taxpayers we have a right to see everything that government employees and government-funded scientists write to each other. Maybe there’s a legitimate argument in there somewhere (and that’s where the headline writer was going with that “accountability” idea), but when the only correspondence that is sought is that concerning a scientific finding that pisses off a politician, society’s collective you-know-what detector really ought to go off. Especially when the request just happens to come immediately before a major international meeting on climate change.

I’ll give the last word to the American Meteorological Society, which wrote a letter to Rep. Smith including two passages from the Society’s Statement on Freedom of Scientific Expression:

The ability of scientists to present their findings to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public without censorship, intimidation, or political interference is imperative.

These principles matter most—and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation—precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society.

Well said, AMS. Scientists have enough to worry about without fear that their lives will be turned upside down if their results are politically inconvenient. Science is one of the best tools we have to understand the world around us. The people we elect to make big decisions for us should respect this powerful tool; they ignore scientific evidence to the peril of all. So, please, let’s not pretend that such congressional bullying of scientists has anything to do with meaningful accountability. The question is, will voters hold accountable politicians who waste taxpayer resources and conduct witch-hunts against scientists?  

Photo credits: "Torturing and execution of witches in medieval miniature" by Anonymous -  Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Child with pacifier: Steven Robinson via Wikimedia Commons

"Wok cooking and the heat source by The Pocket in Nanjing" Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons